Whiffs of political dissent have come wafting out of North Korea, widely considered to be the world's most authoritarian and secretive state, giving rise to speculation that the iron grip of dictator Kim Jong-il may have been jarred loose.
The wreckage of North Korea's economy has been fairly well documented. Now, the critical question is whether the deprivations North Koreans have long suffered have led to political rumbles challenging Kim's harsh rule.
Bradley Babson, a former World Bank official who specializes in the North Korean economy, raised the question in a recent article as to whether North Korea might experience "an internal political breakdown that could be triggered by a coup, social unrest, or unforeseen incapacitation of Kim's leadership."
Little about North Korea is ever certain, given the restrictions on information from the Hermit Kingdom. Even so, a picture emerges from occasional travelers to North Korea, defectors, South Korean sympathizers of North Korea and international organizations that have received aid requests.
The lack of food is basic to fostering dissent. Rations for the armed forces were first cut to 80 percent of normal and recently to 60 percent despite the Kim regime's "Military First" policy, which give priority to the armed forces in everything. Civilians have lost even more.
Pyongyang has recently confirmed the UN's World Food Program estimate that North Korea's food shortage comes to 1 million tonnes. North Korea has reluctantly asked for international aid.
A lack of heat in many places compounded the food shortage this past winter. Uncounted numbers of people have died, especially the elderly.
A particularly grim report said that corpses of the dead have polluted drinking water in some places. Health care has been neglected. In one province, measles has been rampant while scarlet fever has raged in another.